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Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Uncanny (1977) review


Peter Cushing (Wilbur Gray), Ray Milland (Frank Richards), Joan Greenwood (Miss Malkin), Roland Culver (Wallace), Susan Penhaligon (Janet), Simon Williams (Michael), Alexandra Stewart (Mrs. Blake), Donald Pilon (Mr. Blake), Chloe Franks (Angela), Katrina Holden (Lucy), Renee Girard (Miss. Maitland), Donald Pleasence (Valentine De'ath), Samantha Eggar (Edina), John Vernon (Pomeroy), Catherine Begin (Madeleine), Jean Leclerc (Barrington), Sean McCann (Inspector)

Directed by Denis Heroux

The Short Version: Three tales (plus a wraparound) of feline fury are spun in this Canadian-British co-production featuring a stellar cast pitted against malevolent mousers. In its favor, the filmmakers are successful at making the cats look especially menacing and manage to imbue their picture with an unexpectedly gruesome quality. Still, the THE UNCANNY cats failed to land on their feet theatrically; but showed they indeed had nine lives on television where most caught this middle of the road anthology for the first time so it's not an entirely de-clawed affair.

One dark night, an Ailurophobic author visits his publisher to convince him to print his manuscript on the murderous, vindictive propensities of cats. Three fear-filled documents are revealed: a maid and her boyfriend plot to kill a rich woman although her dozens of house cats have other plans; a young girl is taken in by her mother's sister after her parents are killed in a plane crash. Severely bullied by the daughter of the house, the young girl and her cat plot a devilish revenge; and finally, an actor and his lover incur the wrath of his wife's cat after plotting her death on the set of a Gothic horror film.

After dissolving his Amicus Productions partnership with Max J. Rosenberg in 1975, American producer Milton Subotsky went out on his own, setting up other production companies. Sword & Sorcery Productions in 1975; and Tor Productions in 1976--a partnership with Canadian producer Claude Heroux. The former was the more intriguingly tragic of the two--struggling for years in a futile attempt at getting a live-action Thongor movie off the ground (you can read about the unmade Thongor movie HERE); only managing to see a few movies from its ambitious roster released before closing down in 1980; one of them being THE MONSTER CLUB (1981).

The latter, Tor Productions, the company that made THE UNCANNY, did so under the UK-Canada co-production agreement signed in 1975--a treaty that allowed for mutual, lucrative benefits of the collaborative countries involved. Unfortunately, it did nothing to aid the picture in turning a profit; despite an unusually stellar cast the likes of which hadn't been seen since the earlier, more recognizable Amicus portmanteau efforts.

Looking back, it would appear Subotsky's failure with THE UNCANNY would mirror the disaster that befell THE MONSTER CLUB; the difference being the latter title was strictly a British affair. Written by Michel Parry from Subotsky's own story, the idea was originally five segments but ultimately cut down to three--one of which was to have a comedic slant. Curiously, the most dire story from THE MONSTER CLUB was a comical one and, like the darkly humorous entry of THE UNCANNY, it too starred Donald Pleasence.

Tentatively titled BRRR, that frigid moniker doesn't exactly bring killer cats to mind so much as it does standing out in the cold for too long. As problematic as Heroux's movie seems to have been behind the camera, and accompanied by a deluge of negative notices upon its release, the picture really isn't as bad as its pedigree suggests.

The narrative of evil cats manipulating and murdering man sounds outrageous on the surface, but the animals have a rich folkloric attachment to cultures around the world; spiritual and superstitious. The script taps into this vein of mystification for two of its stories, only the result isn't entirely successful.

For example, the wraparound's subtle treatment of the inexplicable captures a forbidding atmosphere the more overtly supernatural segment misses. Cushing's cat-crazy rantings make him seem unhinged even though his feline phobia is justified. His performance works well playing off of Ray Milland's skeptical publisher. The scenes with these two fine thespians are among the picture's strongest points. The camera angles and edits during the connecting portions give the malicious tabbies spooky traits the stories themselves fail to generate. 

If only the movie had the sinister omnipresence of the wraparound segments, THE UNCANNY would be an out of the ordinary omnibus.

In keeping with the nature of Cushing's character's book, the three entries are titled by location and year of occurrence.

LONDON 1912: The bed-ridden and wealthy Miss Malkin rewrites her will leaving everything to her numerous house cats and leaving nothing for her nephew Michael. Not to be impeded in his quest for a lucrative inheritance, Michael plots with his lover, Janet, who happens to be Malkin's maid, to destroy the original will. Malkin catches Janet during the theft attempt who then murders the old woman. Malkin's loyal pack of felines decide to avenge the death of their master, trapping Janet in the pantry with nothing but a little bread and cat food to eat.

This London-set opener benefits from some surprisingly stomach-turning moments. THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT's Susan Penhaligon's reluctant murderess comes to a particularly nasty end in a role with less to chew on than what is reserved for her cat comeuppance. This entry could've used some trimming for pacing, but otherwise, it's a decent start for a film that never rises above adequacy. The tale hearkens back to Hammer's 1961 B/W thriller, THE SHADOW OF THE CAT; and bears some semblance to the 1969 American horror movie, EYE OF THE CAT; directed by David Lowell Rich.

QUEBEC PROVINCE 1975: Lucy's parents are killed in a plane crash so she is sent to live with her relatives, the Blake's. Lucy immediately makes waves with her late mother's sister when she introduces her pet cat Wellington. Things go further south when Mrs. Blake discovers Lucy shares her mother's interest in witchcraft. Mercilessly tormented by her cousin, Angela, who doesn't want her there, Lucy, along with her cat, plot a devilish revenge.

Story #2 is the most elaborate and the least interesting of the three. It mirrors a similar tale told in the far superior THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970) that also featured Chloe Franks playing a part akin to the role of Lucy here. The problem is pacing again. Running approximately 25 minutes, it feels twice as long. Chloe does make Angela incredibly unlikable, but her mother's disdain for Lucy feels fragmented, and not sufficiently realized; unlike the same arc between Chris Lee and Chloe's father--daughter arc in the aforementioned Amicus favorite. The witchcraft finale that sees Angela shrunk down to rodent-size, and battling Wellington is silly, but topped off with a gruesome denouement. 

HOLLYWOOD 1936: After Valentine De'ath's wife is killed on a movie set when a prop is swapped out for the real thing, a replacement actress is sought. Naturally, the actor already has someone in mind... his much younger lover who bears a striking resemblance to his wife. Desiring to also rid his house of his wife's pet cat, Valentine flushes its babies down the toilet before trying to get rid of the mother; unless the vengeful cat gets rid of them first.

The last story is the best due to Donald Pleasence's Price-ian performance as the mad actor Valentine De'ath. The Gothic atmosphere due to the film-set ambiance helps a lot, as does the tongue-in-cheek nature of the narrative; even if much of the comedy doesn't work well. There is a nice in-joke to Pleasence's role as Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) and a guest turn from the future Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon. There's even a subtle jab at Hollywood's famous phrase, 'The Show Must Go On'--in that not even the death of a performer can impede their replacement before one's blood is cold. Overall, it's the liveliest of the three tales. Both Eggar and Pleasence are detestable people and both come to satisfactorily gory ends; in one case, answering the question as to whether the cat has your tongue or not.

While Subotsky wrote the original story for the film, writer Michel Parry was a novelist--penning, among other things, the 1971 movie tie-in of Hammer's COUNTESS DRACULA (1971). He served as editor on the anthology books 'The Rivals of King Kong: A Rampage of Beasts' (1978); 'The Hounds of Hell' (1974); and, of particular interest in relation to this review, 'Beware of the Cat: Weird Tales About Cats' (1972). Featuring tales written by H.P. Lovecraft, Theodore Sturgeon, Ambrose Bierce, and Ramsey Campbell among others. Parry also wrote the story for 1982s intriguing tale of alien horror, XTRO.

There's been a few dozen movies featuring killer cats--from the classy to the trashy--and THE UNCANNY is the most recognizable of the litter. By 1977, horror had virtually buried its Gothic trappings for more visceral terror, making Heroux's modestly grisly cat creature feature feel like it came ten years too late; but with this cast, it's kind of disappointing it's not as engaging as it could've been. Probably the best thing to be said about THE UNCANNY is its strong nostalgia factor since most viewers familiar with the film will remember it fondly from late night television and Saturday afternoon airings.

This review is representative of the Severin bluray. Specs and extras: 1080p HD 1.78:1; interview with actress Susan Penhaligon; trailer; running time: 01:28:42

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